Eating the Ocean

Eating the Ocean

by Elspeth Probyn

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In Eating the Ocean Elspeth Probyn investigates the profound importance of the ocean and the future of fish and human entanglement. On her ethnographic journey around the world's oceans and fisheries, she finds that the ocean is being simplified in a food politics that is overwhelmingly land based and preoccupied with buzzwords like "local" and "sustainable." Developing a conceptual tack that combines critical analysis and embodied ethnography, she dives into the lucrative and endangered bluefin tuna market, the gendered politics of "sustainability," the ghoulish business of producing fish meal and fish oil for animals and humans, and the long history of encounters between humans and oysters. Seeing the ocean as the site of the entanglement of multiple species—which are all implicated in the interactions of technology, culture, politics, and the market—enables us to think about ways to develop a reflexive ethics of taste and place based in the realization that we cannot escape the food politics of the human-fish relationship. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373797
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/13/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and the author of Blush: Faces of Shame and Carnal Appetites: FoodSexIdentities

Read an Excerpt

Eating the Ocean

By Elspeth Probyn

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7379-7


An Oceanic Habitus

Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!

— Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," 1834

It is so vast, the ocean. In this first chapter, I bring together many ideas from very different sources to navigate what a kayaker would know as clapotis — where incoming waves meet with rebounding waves. It's an experience that can shake you up. Sometimes it's not bad to be all at sea — disoriented, we may begin to see new directions. Here I begin to parse the question of fish and human relations. Throughout this book I make an argument — or several — against simplistic options, solutions, reactions ... the pairing of the familiar us versus them, even as the actors interchange.

In public and academic debate, the cultural politics of food continues to be a powerful if conflicting site where forms of state policy and economic, cultural, and affective investment all compete. Individual, regional, and global concerns are all at play within this fraught sphere. It is certainly not a new area, and questions about how we are to feed humanity, and with what, have been ongoing for decades if not millennia. But increasingly it strikes me that the framing of these deep-seated questions strips them of some necessary complexity. In marine science, researchers now talk of the "simplified sea" (Howarth et al. 2014). This describes the problems caused by "fishing down" or "fishing through the food web." This is producing a vastly changed sea, a simplified sea where biodiversity has been stripped away. Once the big predators have been wiped out, "ecosystems become dominated by a handful of species such as prawns, lobster, macroalgae and jellyfish that used to form the diet of, or were outcompeted by, larger fish" (Howarth et al. 2014, 691). Bizarrely enough, there is a temporary upside to this pillage of oceanic biodiversity. In places like Maine and Nova Scotia, the west of Scotland, and Tasmania, some fishers are happy. As the big fish are depleted at the top of the food chain, the smaller ones down the web get their turn. Lobster catches have exploded over the last several years, as too have scallops and prawns. And as one could guess, the value of these invertebrate catches is many times that of the previous resource. It's a bizarre state of affairs.

I want to use the phrase "a simplified sea" to frame some of the initial thoughts that flow through this chapter. First, let me explain more precisely what marine scientists mean by the term. It has to do centrally with oxygen, which is not a substance most of us think about in relation to the ocean. As the big carnivorous fish become ever more scarce, the phytoplankton flourish — in a bloom these tiny floating plant organisms can increase a thousandfold. But they are short lived, and when they die off, bacteria consume them. This eats up more oxygen. Organisms slightly higher up the chain, such as mussels, can't get enough oxygen from the water. They then die off, which produces yet more decaying material and further depletes the oxygen in the water, which has now become thoroughly hypoxic. This provides just the niche that jellyfish love, and they can rapidly take over huge areas. As carnivorous organisms, they eat the eggs of any remaining fish (Howarth et al. 2014, 696).

This process is also called trophic cascading, where like a knife through butter one shock causes other shocks down through the complex webs of life in the sea. The result is dead zones in the oceans around the world where nothing can live. Simplified systems just don't have the resources to survive man-made or natural shocks. I am going to take this term to describe how the ocean and her dependents are being simplified across different registers of cultural representation.

The stories I collate and tell across this book, in their different ways, speak of a necessary complexity. The complex interactions of the highly diverse systems housed within even more complex ecosystems are for me a cue to up the ante against the simplified answers that are routinely trotted out by well-meaning organizations. I'll get to these in more detail later, but if the answer to the problems of fish and the oceans is no, then the question is seriously simplified. I remain at heart a Deleuzian, which is to say that I follow multiple entryways into the entanglement of humans and nonhumans, into our vexed encounters within different ecosystems. The point for me is to diagram, to model, to figure, and to story their interactions in ways that may proliferate different angles, optics, and perhaps understandings.

Turning away from the terrestrial and to the ocean compels an alternative way of thinking about the enmeshed human and nonhuman ecosystems. Perhaps because most humans can't live in water, until recently human concern has been directed to the terrestrial engagements of humans and animals. Food politics, for instance, has been overwhelmingly focused on terrestrial animal protein. Is this simply because it's easier to care about a cow than a lobster? Classic animal rights texts such as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation hesitated about where to draw the line. In the 1990 edition, Singer recounts, "With creatures like oysters, doubts about a capacity for pain are considerable; and in the first edition of this book I suggested that somewhere between shrimp and an oyster seems as good a place to draw the line as any" (174). For many, pescetarianism (fish-eating vegetarianism) makes sense: For some, it's about not eating an organism that can cry out to human ears; for others, the driving question is how to feed the planet equitably and efficiently (and of course, land-based animals are not efficient as a means of producing protein). It sounds mercenary to talk in terms of animals as efficient or inefficient producers of protein for humans, but a looming population of nine billion requires critical thought. And even though aquaculture is in its infancy compared to agriculture, the feed conversion ratio of fish is in many instances lower than that of land-based animals — I return to this issue in chapter 5. Of course, many people choose not to eat meat because of the closeness of mammal eating mammal. Concern for some species over others may be simply because of their good looks and good luck to be anthropomorphically cute. It's hard, though not impossible, to cuddle a fish. Anthropomorphic projections can belittle animals, but they can also afford an imagined connection between and among species. In a future life, I want to be a bluefin tuna or a jellyfish. How we imagine and engage with the complex issues of human-fish relations may effect which animal is still extant.

Christopher Bear and Sally Eden argue that many of the new animal geographies exclude fish because of the "alien" spaces they inhabit: "Water environments [contrast] with the 'airy' spaces that we humans inhabit" (2011, 337). It's an environment where humans often get horribly seasick. I certainly do. But this unsettling queasiness can be productive. Gisli Pálsson, an Icelandic anthropologist of fish, understands seasickness as a kind of culture shock, which is produced out of and indicates a lack of "emotional and physical manifestations of mastery and enskilment" (1994, 905). In a different context, and with different effects, sailors in the tropics were said to suffer calenture, fevers that caused them to want to throw themselves from the boat into what they imagined as cool billowing green pastures.

In moving out of the realm of arbitrary hierarchies of what is good or not good to eat, can we engender a more wide-ranging cultural politics of sustainable food production and consumption? As marine biologist Carlos Duarte asks, "Will the oceans help feed humanity?" (Duarte et al. 2009). To which it needs to be added, is it too late? Is the ocean broken (Ray 2013)? In early 2013, Ivan Macfadyen sailed his yacht from Australia to California two years after the Japanese earthquake, the tsunami, and the disaster of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Macfadyen describes how "only silence and desolation surrounded his boat, Funnel Web, as it sped across the surface of a haunted ocean" (Ray 2013). Without simplistic extremes like T. H. Huxley's (1882) "inexhaustible" ocean fisheries or the image of the ocean on its last legs, how might we formulate a cultural politics that can encompass the vast challenge of sustaining fish-human-ocean relations? There is little consensus about what action to take, or which aspect to focus on.

To illustrate this, I want to briefly analyze several recent representations that foreground different understandings about the current state of fish and fishing. What forms of affect may or may not be mobilized within a cultural politics of oceanic connection? What types of action might be envisioned and hoped for? What oceanic complexities are silenced?

The End of the Line: Imagine a World without Fish (Murray 2009) is a gripping documentary about the interconnections that imperil fisheries and oceans worldwide. Based on the British journalist Charles Clover's book of the same name, it is narrated by Ted Danson and has the high production values more common to an Attenborough blue chip nature documentary (Richards 2013) than the genre of animal rights activist film. It had a budget of over a million GBP, cobbled together from the UK Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation and numerous smaller agencies. It is a highly researched and passionately told tale of what is happening in the oceans. It features renowned fish scientists such as the University of British Columbia's Daniel Pauly. Pauly is a charismatic scholar. He looks directly into the camera and states in his lightly French-accented voice, "All the fish are gone. Where are they? We have eaten them." I get goose bumps. Of the documentaries I have viewed over the course of this project, The End of the Line is the most powerful. The production team brought on board organizations as different as Waitrose and Greenpeace, and apparently the documentary caused several businesses to change their sourcing practices. A YouGov survey of two thousand people commissioned by Waitrose in 2009 found that "when made aware of the facts, 70% of people are more likely to make sustainable choices. But 78% admit that they currently don't attempt to buy sustainable seafood at all" (Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation 2009).

Sadly, this is all too common. What people say they want to do (or even do want to do) is often at odds with what they actually do. But The End of the Line did create ripples. It spawned several social media campaigns, such as Fish Fight, an initiative of the British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Fish Fight had one goal when it started in 2010, and that was to force the European Union to change its regulations to ban the practice of throwing back discarded fish. Perhaps because it was focused on one objective, and it used social media to mobilize large numbers of people in the United Kingdom to pester their members of European Parliament, it worked. The EU changed its regulations.

The End of the Line and Fish Fight may also have led to a television documentary narrated and promoted by Sir Richard Branson and Virgin, called Mission: Save the Ocean (Nat Geo Wild 2013). Much of the documentary is shot in thriller mode and combines glorious shots of Branson's Necker Island with edgy noir scenes. The stars are the big three ocean and fish sustainability programs: Greenpeace, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). It seems that Sir Richard really does care about the ocean; he is an Ocean Elder — one of a rather diverse collection of high-profile people concerned with ocean awareness (including Ted Turner, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Jackson Browne, and Sylvia Earle). Branson's message is squarely on the power of the entrepreneur and of the consumer: "I'm an entrepreneur and entrepreneurship is about new ideas and making a difference. We can all make a difference. Your choices in everyday life can actually make things better for the ocean" (Nat Geo Wild 2013).

My next example is a 2010 Dutch documentary, Sea the Truth (Everaert and Zwanikken 2010), funded by the Netherlands' Party for Animals and the Nicolaas G. Pierson Foundation. It followed from a previous documentary called Meat the Truth (Soeters and Zwanikken 2008), which encouraged people to give up eating meat for a day, a week, or a lifetime. Sea the Truth is narrated by the leader of the party, Marianne Thieme, and centers on Dos Winkel, an activist, scuba diver, and photographer. While his art is spectacular, much of the documentary focuses on his talking head. The main issues are overfishing for human consumption and the practice of using fish to feed animals and other fish. The process of fish reduction is represented in cartoon form, and it does capture the lunacy of turning fish into fish meal, and the complicated issues of the production and consumption of fish oil capsules (to which I return in chapter 5). Echoing Huxley, Thieme speaks of how the ocean was "an inexhaustible horn of plenty for humans." In her conclusion, there is but one player to be blamed: "The fishing industry is responsible for the disappearance of species and the destruction of valuable ecosystems and that is also true for so-called sustainable fisheries. The entire industry runs off billions of government subsidies. Every citizen is paying for the destruction of the seas and oceans."

Thieme frames "the fishing industry" as one undifferentiated, monolithic entity. Many people assume this without realizing how complex and distinct each form of commercial fishing is. The only thing that holds them together is the ocean, and even then the differences between inshore fishing and deep-sea fishing are immense. I have attended many fishing association congresses, and one thing is clear: The industry is not one. It is one of the most fragmented collections of commercial endeavors. On the one hand there is the myth (and at times reality) of the rugged individualist fisherman loath to tell of his secret fishing spots, and on the other there are the very different practices included under the rubric of commercial fishing. Some fisheries are certified as sustainable; some are not certified but practice responsible fishing; some are criminal operations using indentured labor to scrape the seafloor bare. But there is no one industry to finger. Ignoring this complexity, Thieme calls on the consumer to resolve the situation: "Our forks are mighty weapons. Use them for a sustainable future." This catchy line erases from view the complexity of the chains that lead from production to consumption.

The final example I will mention is the Australian-based documentary Drawing the Line (Blyth and Gloor 2013). The title is a direct if unspoken riposte to Clover's book and documentary. The tagline is "What if you lost everything you loved because someone else wanted to protect it?" "Drawing the line" also refers to the lines being drawn in the sea for marine protected areas (MPAs). Australia is, of course, an island nation. Currently planned MPAs will constitute some 30 percent or more of the world's total MPAs. The documentary is unabashedly partisan — funded by and starring several Australian fishers. To back their line, the documentary includes interviews with some of Australia's top fisheries scientists, such as Colin Buxton and Caleb Gardner from the University of Tasmania's Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies.

Marine parks are particularly complicated in Australia, as the commonwealth and the states and territories have different areas of jurisdiction and management control. Marine reserves in commonwealth waters start three nautical miles (5.5 kilometers) from shore (Department of the Environment 2014). This means that the all-important recreational fishing sector is mostly spared by commonwealth measures. This sector is very politically savvy, with campaign slogans such as "I fish, I vote." They had the former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, completely on board, appearing in countless photo ops looking Putinesque: macho political leader complete with fishing gear.

In the public realm, there is little concern for commercial fishers. Such is the fishing industry's worry about the public's perception of the fishing industry that many fishers now call themselves "professional" rather than "commercial" fishers. It's an interesting divide: Fishing for a living is portrayed as pillaging the seas for immense profits, whereas recreational fishing is seen as a benign activity despite its practitioners catching millions of tons of different species, including valuable ones such as lobster and abalone. Drawing the Line relies on several Australian fishing families to convey how deeply those who live on the ocean feel about "the industry that is part of the family." The documentary's message is that Australian fisheries are the most highly regulated and managed in the world, with which many fisheries scientists would concur. By and large Australian fishers have come to grips with the quota system; however, the government's turn to MPAs as the preferred measure for regulation is deeply upsetting to the fishers as it effectively closes off large segments of their previous fishing grounds. The fishers portrayed in the documentary are like many in Australia, multigenerational family businesses who regard themselves as long-term custodians of the resource by which they live.


Excerpted from Eating the Ocean by Elspeth Probyn. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Relating Fish and Humans  1
1. An Oceanic Habitus  23
2. Following Oysters, Relating Taste  49
3. Swimming with Tuna  77
4. Mermaids, Fishwives, and Herring Quines: Gendering the More-than-Human  101
5. Little Fish: Eating with the Ocean  129
Conclusion. Reeling it In  159
Notes  165
References  169
Index  183

What People are Saying About This

In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics - Sarah Sharma

"Beautifully written and full of profound ideas, Eating the Ocean engages the reader and surprises her at many turns. Elspeth Probyn complicates the current work being done on food politics, making this an urgent and necessary book for scholars of food studies, environmental culture, the materialist turn, consumer culture, and gender."

Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship - Sarah Franklin

"Once again Elspeth Probyn charts a contemporary site of contested encounters with style, humor, erudition, and wit. Moving on, through, and under the waves she provides a timely guide to eating the oceans more ethically by cultivating a metabolic sensibility more responsive to our entanglements with aquatic worlds."

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